On Friday, 1 December, Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post (SCMP) threatened legal action against Hong Kong Free Press in retaliation for the independent outlet’s coverage of the disappearance of SCMP defence correspondent Minnie Chan in China. The threat came in response to attempts to clarify her whereabouts but only targeted the smaller HKFP, although other international news outlets had also covered the story, including Al-Jazeera and the Guardian. On 30 November, Kyoto News had first reported Chan missing since having travelled in late October to Beijing for the Xiangshan Forum, an annual security conference. The Hong Kong Journalist Association also issued a statement, that it was ‘very concerned about Chan’s safety and is asking SCMP for information about the incident’.
‘That HKFP has been singled out with the threat of legal action has all the hallmarks of arbitrary litigation to silence and intimidate a free press performing its function as a public watchdog,’ said Michael Caster, ARTICLE 19’s Asia Digital Programme Manager. ‘Rather than threatening legal action, South China Morning Post should be grateful for the outpouring of support and solidarity for its journalist.’
In response to the mounting coverage, SCMP responded Friday with a statement that Chan had taken personal leave in Beijing, but provided no further information on her fate or whereabouts. In an email response to HKFP Editor-in-Chief Tom Grundy, specifically, the Alibaba-owned outlet accused the independent press of ‘rushing to conclusions not supported by facts’ and held out that they ‘reserve[d] all rights to take legal action against any misreporting of this matter concerning the Post’.
Despite assurances from SCMP over Chan’s wellbeing, a friend of Chan’s told Al-Jazeera that her WhatsApp account was last active only on 2 November — WhatsApp is blocked in mainland China — and that her recent Facebook activity had been ‘very strange,’ with her posting selfies instead of the usual link to her articles and other commentary. Chan, reportedly, has also not responded to comments from her friends inquiring about her whereabouts during her last Facebook activity.
Concern for Chan’s disappearance is not unfounded in China, where arbitrary and secret detention is widespread, and effectively no one is immune. Jack Ma, once China’s richest person and founder of the tech titan Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post, himself vanished from the public for an extended period in 2020 following his criticism of Chinese authorities.
This is not the first time a reporter for SCMP has gone missing. Last year, a mainland China-based diplomacy correspondent for SCMP was held in incommunicado detention for a few months.
Chan has effectively gone missing following her attendance at the Xiangshan security conference in Beijing, noteworthy this year by the absence of China’s Defence Minister, Li Shangfu, who had been formally removed from his position just beforehand after himself having disappeared from view in late August.
Chan’s apparent disappearance also comes just over a month after Australian journalist Cheng Lei was finally released from three years of detention in China on vague national security charges. The Australian anchor for the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) had initially disappeared in August 2020 into the shadowy Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location system of administrative detention before being finally charged in February 2021.
At times, China has gone to lengths to mask otherwise secret detentions with carefully choreographed displays. In November 2021, for example, following tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after she accused retired Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, in an apparent ploy to placate global concern for Peng Shuai ahead of the Beijing Olympics, she inexplicably appeared in a seemingly-scripted interview with International Olympics Committee (IOC) President Thomas Back while no one else had been able to reach her independently at the time.
‘That China has engaged in scripted attempts to cover up otherwise secret detentions in the past should raise alarm bells when friends of Chan point to her recent social media activity as strange for departing from its usual content to suddenly post holiday selfies, just the sort of potentially forced display of wellbeing one would instruct to try and prove Chan was not held against her will,’ said Caster. ‘Chinese authorities must immediately disclose Chan’s whereabouts and ensure her wellbeing. Let’s hope she is merely on holiday, but China’s record of disappearances places a higher burden of proof on the State to disprove all such concerns.’
China ranks among the worst places on earth for press freedom and the harassment and arbitrary detention of journalists.
For more information
Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager, [email protected].